I need an effective, short-term weight loss and toning plan

Dear Alice,

I am 18 years old and I am determined to lose a few pounds and tone my body by the end of May. I just began running and I'm starting off by running a mile and hope to work up to a four-mile run four or five days a week. My diet is generally a bowl of cereal in the morning, and a turkey or ham sandwich with some type of fruit and a bottle of water. Dinner is something different every day, but usually healthy. I also have been doing an ab workout for about seven minutes after I run. Is what I'm doing effective? What are your suggestions?


Dear *Annie*, 

Bravo for incorporating physical activity into your schedule! Regular exercise increases energy levels, improves the quality of sleep, and boosts self-esteem. In terms of the effectiveness of your routine, it's difficult to say. Losing weight and toning up are influenced by multiple factors, including height, weight, bone density, genetics, and previous exercise regimen. It might be helpful to begin with exploring why you want to lose weight, what you mean by "a few pounds", and whether the change you’re striving for is realistic. You might also consider your baseline weight as well as what a healthy weight for your body is, what foods are best to fuel your body, and possible challenges you may face in weight loss. A health care provider may be able to help you determine a healthy weight goal, while a consult with a personal trainer, exercise physiologist, or registered dietitian may provide you with more logistics on how to actually reach that goal. While you may have short-term goals for your body, creating a sustainable, long-term plan for incorporating physical activity and appropriate eating patterns into your daily routine is your best bet for living a healthy life. 

Being clear about your goals can help you evaluate your progress. Are you aiming for a specific body weight that would be measured on the scale? Is there a specific body or fat composition or image you're looking for? A physical strength goal? A clothing size you want to fit into? If so, it can be important to highlight some of the drawbacks with a few of these measures. For example, if you're using clothing size to judge progress, sizes can vary drastically by brand; what one company calls a "small" could be another's "large." If you're using a scale to measure body weight, keep a few things in mind: 

  • Muscle weighs more than fat. 
  • Those assigned female at birth are prone to minor weight fluctuations due to menstruation and other types of hormonal activity. 
  • Water, an essential nutrient for all body functions, can tip the scale one way or another. 

Generally speaking, for strength and resistance training workouts, it’s impossible to target only specific sections of your body for weight loss so, the more muscles you use the better. For cardio or aerobic training, a good rule of thumb is that if you can talk comfortably during your workout, then you're probably burning fat; if you're having trouble saying more than a few words at a time, then you're probably burning carbs. It might be good to note that it isn't necessary to pursue long sessions of high-intensity cardio and, in fact, overdoing it can prevent proper muscle recovery. If you're persistently training at a high intensity, the carbs used to fuel your body can become so depleted that you end up breaking down protein instead which may cost you the muscle you've been trying to enhance. 

As for your meals, dietary consciousness can be key to weight loss. A meal is usually considered "healthy" if it includes a variety of nutrients, and whether it helps with weight loss depends on its caloric content. If you're eating less calories than your body is using, then you'll likely lose weight. However, rapid weight loss diets such as low-calorie diets, time-restricted eating, intermittent fasting, and other fad diets can be dangerous to your health. For most people, losing more than one to two pounds a week is considered unsafe due to the higher risk of losing muscle, water, and bone density. It’s also worth noting that studies found that people who lost weight slowly ultimately lost more weight and sustained that weight loss for longer than those who followed a rapid weight loss strategy. To help you maintain an active lifestyle, you may try some of these strategies: 

  • Start slowly and build over time. Making changes to your routine isn’t going to happen overnight so to help sustain the change it’s good to start slow. 
  • Incorporate variety into your exercise and eating routine to maintain enjoyment and motivation. Eating a wide variety of foods and drinking plenty of water will help to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs. 
  • Find a friend. Studies have shown social support plays a vital role in exercise motivation and sticking to an activity plan. 
  • Get plenty of rest. Sleep deprivation often makes everything more challenging, and it’s especially easy to skip exercise when you feel tired. Plus, the more you exercise, the more rest your muscles will need to repair and recover. 
  • Make it fun. Listening to music, running in the sunshine, or playing sports with friends are all ways to maximize fun and make physical activity something you look forward to rather than dread. 

Above all, keep in mind that every individual is different. If you feel good about what you are doing and are making progress, keep going until you reach your realistic, healthy goal. You can do it! 


Last updated Mar 24, 2023
Originally published May 21, 2004